Author: Jerry Beck
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: Insight Editions
Pages: 160 pages
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another book review! For my last article in my twenties, I’m taking a look at a recent find called The SpongeBob SquarePants Experience, written by respected animation historian Jerry Beck (if you’re a veteran, you may remember me covering one of his other books several years ago). This high-quality book comes in its own slipcase and is just as bold and colourful as the show it’s celebrating, although interestingly the blurb is not printed on the book itself, but instead comes as a loose sheet; once the plastic wrap is off, you’ll have to sandwich it safely inside the back cover if you want to keep it.
Tom Kenny, the voice of the titular sea sponge, kicks things off with a foreword, in which he muses on the global phenomenon that is SpongeBob SquarePants and gives credit to the many artists and creators who brought him to life (starting, of course, with Stephen Hillenburg). There then follows a short introduction by Russell Hicks, then president of Nickelodeon Content Development and Production, who further elaborates on SpongeBob’s timelessness and briefly recalls the initial pitch for the show.
After this, the rest of the book is divided into fourteen chapters, all beautifully printed in vivid colour (although I must admit to enhancing the pictures slightly on my phone; November is a very grey month here) and accompanied by lots of little inserts and extras (some more interesting than others). The sections can be roughly split into two camps: there are the “making of” chapters, which are really what I bought this for in the first place, and the character chapters, which take a closer look at the show’s undersea cast.
Each character chapter provides an extended analysis of its subject through the words of those who brought them to life, alongside some artwork of the characters in a variety of styles. We then get a selection of their best quotes (although you could easily fill a separate book with these, given how famously quotable – and memeable – SpongeBob is), “little-known facts”, and “greatest moments”, the latter being brief synopses of standout episodes (the selection of “greatest” leaves something to be desired, in my opinion). Brief bios of each of the voice actors are also provided in their respective characters’ sections – Tom Kenny for SpongeBob (and Gary), Bill Fagerbakke for Patrick, Rodger Bumpass for Squidward, Clancy Brown for Mr. Krabs, Mr. Lawrence for Plankton, Carolyn Lawrence (no relation) for Sandy, and Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway for Mermaidman and Barnacleboy. SpongeBob’s section ends with a special double-page spread celebrating his status as an international star, by showing us his name in around 30 different languages.
Towards the end of the book, there is a section on the “supporting players”, which provides very brief details on Karen, Mrs. Puff, Old Man Jenkins, Pearl, Doctor Gill Gilliam, Larry the Lobster, Flatts the Flounder, Bubble Bass, Perch Perkins, Squilliam Fancyson, the Flying Dutchman, the Dirty Bubble, Patchy the Pirate and Potty the Parrot. While these character parts may be enjoyable for younger readers, they don’t offer much of interest to animation enthusiasts, being rather fluffy.
What I came for were the parts on the actual creation of the show, starting with “Creating SpongeBob – Part 1”. This was my favourite chapter, covering Hillenburg’s early career in marine biology, the birth of the idea that became SpongeBob and the show’s beginnings, then tracking its rise in popularity through its first three seasons and detailing some of the core creators who made it what it is. Beck tells the story in an engaging way and frequently turns the floor over to Hillenburg himself, quoting him at length as he discusses his inspirations and goals for his show. After this comes a shorter but equally interesting chapter, “How a SpongeBob Cartoon is Made”, in which the process of making an episode is described – very useful for fans who might not know much about the animation process in general.
“Creating SpongeBob – Part 2” continues the story of the show, picking up with the release of the first movie in 2004 and going up to the sixth season. Not to sound like a killjoy, but I find this chapter rather sad, personally, as it nonchalantly mentions the departure of Hillenburg and thus marks the beginning of the show’s decline (naturally, there’s no mention of the fact that Hillenburg had intended to end the show by then, but Nickelodeon found it too profitable to let it go). This section’s inserts include a small SpongeBob comic (though not the Intertidal Zone one that the show was based on) and ends with Hillenburg’s pitch artwork for the show, which gets a double page spread to itself.
We then come to “SpongeBob in Three Dimensions”, a whole chapter devoted to the eighth season special It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! made in collaboration with Screen Novelties in 2012. Although I had stopped watching the show by that point and have thus not seen the episode, it’s still an interesting aside on stop-motion animation written by someone with obvious enthusiasm for the medium – Beck even mentions the special’s sources of inspiration, such as the classic Rankin/Bass specials of the 1960s and 1970s.
Our last chapter before the acknowledgments is “Creating SpongeBob – Part 3”, which covers the show’s tenth anniversary in 2009 and its continuing popularity since then. I must admit, I’m not at all keen on this chapter, as it almost seems to be wilfully trying to refute accusations of seasonal rot or Flanderization, harping on insistently about how wonderful and funny the “post-Hillenburg” material is, offering theories on how they keep such a long runner “fresh”, and focussing conspicuously on the merchandise side of things. This book is now nearly ten years old, Hillenburg is gone, and the show has still not been put to rest – in fact, with all the movies and spinoffs, it’s being milked harder than ever. Perhaps I sound like an overdramatic millennial, but I grieve for Hillenburg’s original creation; nostalgia goggles or not, I truly believe its best days are behind it and wish the world could just move on already. Don’t new generations deserve something of their own to treasure?
Anyway, I’ll wrap this up before I go off on a tangent. Overall, this is an excellent book for fans of the show, even if it is a tad outdated. The printing quality is luscious, and it’s packed with behind-the-scenes details for animation enthusiasts – just be prepared for a bit of filler in the character sections. It’s out of print now, but if you can find this one for a good price on eBay, I’d definitely consider adding it to your collection.
Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this review! There are plenty more to come, but as ever, I haven’t given up on the plans to return to film reviews at some point. It seems a shame to end 2022 without having done a single one, so after my birthday, I’ll see if I can carve out some time around Christmas prep to return to The Incredibles. There will certainly be another book review ready if nothing else, as I recently finished a much anticipated one by the great Don Bluth – and I’m sure there will be something to say on Disney’s impending Strange World. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!
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